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'Enthusiasm' saves defendant wrongly accused in murder case

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

(Court TV) -- Juan Catalan has never watched "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the HBO comedy series starring comedian Larry David. "I don't even have HBO," he says with an easy laugh.

But now he's a devoted fan of the show that helped to free him from jail -- and a potential death row sentence ? earlier this year.

Catalan spent five and a half months in Los Angeles County jail after being falsely accused of murdering 16-year-old Martha Puebla as retribution for her testimony in a murder case related to a case against Catalan's brother.

"The woman that was killed did not testify against my brother, but the prosecutors tried to make that connection," Catalan told Court TV's Catherine Crier Friday. Catalan and his attorney, Todd Melnik, spoke to Crier about the tape that freed the 24-year-old North Hollywood man.

On May 12, 2003, Puebla was gunned down in front of her San Fernando Valley home. According to Melnik, witnesses described a black car that had been circling the area starting at about 10:02 p.m. Four teens in the area said that a man, who did not fit Catalan's description, jumped out of the car some time before 11 p.m. and shot Puebla in the face.

One eyewitness fingered Catalan as the gunman. A month later, he was arrested and charged with one count of murder with the special circumstances of murdering a witness and lying in wait.

But Catalan said he was at Dodger Stadium that night, watching his home team get stomped by the Atlanta Braves, 11-4, with his 6-year-old daughter -- and he had the ticket stubs to prove it.

Prosecutors didn't buy his alibi. Even though Puebla had testified against his brother's co-defendant, not his brother, the district attorney stuck by its retribution motive, Catalan told His 26-year-old brother was accused in a 2002 gang-related slaying.

"I asked to take a lie detector test," Catalan said, "And I was denied three times."

Melnik was determined to prove his client's innocence, even though he met skepticism when he subpoenaed tapes of the televised game from Fox and cell phone records from Nextel.

"I said, 'Come on! We're gonna save this guy's life. This is a death penalty case -- you have to help me out here,'" Melnik told Crier.

When Melnik studied footage of the game, Catalan's face was not clear enough to make out. But then his client remembered that an HBO TV crew had been filming near him that day.

In December, Melnik was invited to Larry David's production company to watch footage of the "Carpool Lane" episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The show, which aired Feb. 8, revolved around David hiring a prostitute -- not for sex, but as a passenger in his car, enabling him to drive in the carpool lane through rush-hour traffic and get to the Dodger game in time.

Melnik sat in the editing bay with David, carefully surveying the tape. Catalan was nowhere to be found in the final cut. And then Melnik spotted his baseball-capped client in the corner of an out take, sitting in his seat and eating a hotdog with his daughter.

"I jumped out of my chair and said, 'Roll that tape back!'" Melnik said. "It was him."

The tapes, which were time coded, proved that Catalan was at the ballpark that evening. Comparing this to Catalan's cell phone records, Melnik says he was able to place his client near the stadium at the time that the black car had begun circling the victim. The cumulative evidence supported his claim that it would have been impossible for Catalan to have been at Puebla's home at the time of the shooting.

In January, a judge released Catalan, citing insufficient evidence to try him.

"This experience was a nightmare," he told "It was the worst time of my life."

Catalan recently filed a claim against the city through his civil attorney, alleging false imprisonment, misconduct and defamation of character.

Catalan said that, despite his bitterness about being held in jail for nearly six months, he was hoping to move on with his life and his work as a machinist for his family's business.

The incident has also apparently sparked newfound career ambitions for Larry David. "I'm quitting the show," the comedian said in a tongue-in-cheek statement, "to devote the rest of my life to freeing those unjustly incarcerated."

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